During the pandemic, a familiar, if depressing, statistic about divorce continues to make headlines: “China’s Divorce Spike Is a Warning to Rest of Locked-Down World” reported Bloomberg News in March. “Divorce rates in America soar by 34% during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Daily Mail proclaimed in August. “Considering a Coronavirus Divorce? You’re in Good Company” a New York Times op-ed assured in October. While some sociologists have argued that divorce rates may not be as high as these stories suggest, the pandemic has challenged many relationships—perhaps to the point of no return. But in a recent episode of How To!, John and Julie Gottman, co-founders of The Gottman Institute and co-authors of Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, shared strategies for repairing and strengthening your relationship, no matter how much pressure you’re facing. Their advice on avoiding criticism and having “better” fights is tried and true—not only in the workshops they hold with couples all across the country, but also in their own 30-year marriage. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: To start, could you tell me about what you’ve been hearing from couples you’ve been counseling?
Julie Gottman: For every couple, COVID has become a terrible pressure cooker. There’s a huge amount to do. There’s more financial stress. There are many more limits in terms of having fun. And when it comes to children, you can’t get the help you need—you can’t take your child to daycare and because you can’t take your child to daycare, you don’t have time. On top of that, we have found in our research that about 70 percent of all couples after the first baby is born go through a huge drop in their marital satisfaction. Part of it is the sleep deprivation because after 30 days of interrupted sleep, most people will show almost every sign of clinical depression.
And so it’s really tough. The problems happening right now are not necessarily a lack on your part. That being said, 69 percent of all problems couples have are perpetual problems. They never go away. It’s important to learn how to dialogue about those problems and without getting so flooded that you go into fight or flight and it ends up being a horrible fight.
Charles: And so how do we do that?
Julie: Well, many fights cause what we would call “emotional injuries,” where you’re so flooded—not feeling listened to, feeling attacked—that you go into fight or flight. The things that come out of your mouth, you can’t remember. What’s going on in your body is that your heart rates are typically going to be over 100 beats a minute, even if you’re just sitting there and doing nothing. You’ll feel hot. Maybe your muscles will tense up. The minute you start feeling that, tell your partner “I need a break.” You make that break at least 30 minutes long, if not longer. During that time, go away from each other and don’t think about the fight, because if you keep thinking about the fight and what you should have said then what happens is you stay flooded. What you really need to do instead is to self-soothe.
It’s also important to look for what your partner’s doing right. Not what they’re doing wrong. You know, John is an angel. I recently had some shoulder surgery. And so John is doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen and cooking. But what do I see? I see the crumbs that got left over on the counter. And I’m like “John! Come here! Clean up the counter!” I mean, it’s like, “Oh, God, I shouldn’t do that. I should know better, here I am an expert.”
Charles: What’s the most frequent fight you both have and how do you work through it?
Julie: Well, we have the fight over cleaning up the housework area most often. Right, sweetie?
John Gottman: Right.
Julie: So John will have a huge pile somewhere, like in the living room—
John: The banjo, the flute, the books…
Julie: The banjo, the flute, the books, papers, the journals that haven’t been read. I’ll ask John to pick please pick up the living room and he’ll pick up the living room and take all the stuff to the kitchen and it will sit on the kitchen counter!
So firstly, I’ve learned to have lower standards. Secondly, I’ll let things go for longer than I ordinarily would. And then finally, I’ll get to my crazy place. My crazy place sounds like this: “John. I’m going to kill you unless you clean up the living room. Will you please clean up the living room?” Now, notice I haven’t described him. I’ve just described me, so then—
John: I get to work!
Julie: And he gets to work because he knows through experience that I’m not a happy girl if things are a total mess.
John: Happy wife, happy life.
Charles: Has the way you’ve related to each other changed over the years?
John: Yes. Early on when we were married, I thought, “She’s being too emotional. Why can’t she be more like me?” But over time, I’ve learned to realize that her emotions are actually a resource for us. If I listen and understand what she’s feeling, then we actually get closer and I learn to see things from her perspective. Then she winds up seeing things from my perspective, and then we can collaborate.
But when you start to identify your problems in terms of deficits in [someone’s] character, that’s criticism. And once you see that pattern of one person saying “the problem is with my partner,” that’s a bad sign.
Julie: This is a really important piece here. Researchers look for patterns. Therapists look for patterns. Partners do not. If you start pointing out patterns in your partner’s behaviors, you’re coming off as condescending. You never, ever want to be your partner’s therapist. Ever!
What criticism always inspires is defensiveness: “Wait a minute. Don’t attack me. Here’s what was going on for me.” Do you know what a sea anemone looks like? It’s one of those sea creatures you see in tide pools that is circular and has all these little fingers that open up. But if you poke it a little bit, all the fingers close back down again. That’s what I think when I hear one partner criticizing another—it’s like a poke.
Charles: So what can we say differently?
Julie: So what needs to happen instead is when you have a complaint, if you have something that disturbs you in the relationship, you want to describe yourself. I feel about what and here’s my positive need. For example, “I feel upset that the kitchen is a mess.” Now, the positive need means you’re not talking about what you don’t want. You’re talking about what you do want. You have to be very specific about it: “I would love it if you could pay the bills by next Monday. That would take a load off my plate.” And on the other end, it would really help if you were absolutely realistic about what you could deliver and what you can’t.
John: It’s important that each person doesn’t shut down but instead really talks about what they need from the other person. And that you both listen. Defensiveness is the big enemy of problem solving. And I always have to work on being less defensive and listening well to my wife.
Julie: I have to work on being less critical. So there you go! We’re all working together on this stuff.
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